If you want to buy a small bottle of water anywhere in the town of Sudbury, you better do it now. In just a few weeks a new ban takes effect on the sale of single-serving plastic water bottles, one liter or less.
Sudbury is one of just three municipalities in the country to adopt a law like this. And all of them are right here in Massachusetts. Last month, Great Barrington voted to institute a similar ban. And the pioneer on this front was the town of Concord, where the ban took effect in 2013. I was curious how things are going in Concord — five years into this experiment in environmentalism — so I headed there to find out.
Concord’s Main Street is dotted with cafes and quaint gift shops, like Revolutionary Concord, where I quickly learned that — after all these years — the water bottle ban is still the talk of the town.
"I’m actually incredibly proud of Concord," said Betsy Yamron, an employee there. "I think we’re on the forefront of leading change. Just like our forefathers have done before us."
Not everyone I spoke to in Concord was with Yamron. Some said the ban didn’t go far enough — that plastic soda or juice bottles should also be nixed. Others said it was unfair, inconvenient or a classic example of government overreach.
Outside a coffee shop, I ran into Tom McKean, the current chair of the Concord Select Board. He recounted how divisive the issue was here. Asked whether everyone has now made peace with the measure?
"I’m not sure if I’d go that far to speak for everybody," he said. "But I’d say that people have accepted it."
And getting to acceptance has meant making adjustments.
In the tonier downtown shops, the coolers are still filled with single-serving-sized water — but it's in milk-carton-like boxes or glass bottles. At the more egalitarian mini marts, you can still find plenty of larger, liter-and-a-half plastic bottles of water, and single-serving bottles of carbonated, flavored water — both still allowed under the law.
And the town itself has also had to make changes.
"We’ve installed a lot more water fountains," said Erin Stevens, the town's public information officer.
This year alone they’ve added five new, modern filling stations at a cost of about $5,000 a pop. Most of those have gone in near parks and athletic fields, where plastic water bottles remained ubiquitous for years, even after the ban on their sale went into effect.
And a town-led awareness campaign continues in full force. Follow the public information office on social media and you’ll get a free aluminum, refillable water bottle emblazoned with the town crest. Then there is what Stevens calls the "water map." You can grab a physical map at places all around town, or find it online. The map lists the location of all the town’s water fountains, as well as numerous businesses that are happy to let you fill up for free.
One of those is Revolutionary Concord, where owner Marie Foley keeps a bubbler filled with local tap water.
"What use to drive me nuts at the shop is, at the end of the day, I would find six or seven [plastic water bottles] that had maybe six or seven sips out of it," she said. "[Customers would] forget they had it and off they'd go." This was once a daily concurrence, but these days? "I don't have a lot of people coming in holding plastic water bottles," she said.
But real, hard numbers about the ban’s impact five years in are hard to come by. Stevens says the new fountains have doled out a thousand gallons of water. That’s about 4,000 small plastic bottles worth, but can you really say all that tap water was used en lieu of bottles?
"We ask the people who are driving the recycling trucks, 'What are you seeing,' and they say ‘We’ve definitely seen a decrease,'" she said. "But it’s hard to measure. So, I can’t say how many bottles we’ve saved, unfortunately."
Still, Stevens believes it is making a difference — and that it can in other towns, too. And while restrictions on plastic water bottles haven’t caught on like those on, say, plastic shopping bags or — more recently — plastic straws, Stevens says that people across the country are taking note. Activists in Sudbury, Great Barrington and other towns have reached out to officials in Concord as they seek to take action in their communities. Dozens of colleges and universities now have similar restrictions on plastic water bottles.
"People that I meet when I go to conferences and things like that go, 'Oh, you're from Concord. Wait a second, I have some questions about this water bottle thing,'" she explained.
So does Stevens think that in 2018 Concord is more famous for the battles of Lexington and Concord or their plastic water bottle ban?
"That’s tough," she said. "I mean, you don’t learn about the plastic water bottle ban in high school, I don’t think."
At least not yet. And if that seems a stretch, keep in mind that when skirmishes broke out in Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, they were just the latest in a series of somewhat isolated incidents in one of 13 separate “New World” colonies. It was only with time that it became clear what they really were: The start of an American Revolution.
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